Why minimalism works

Retail design is more important than ever - and with minimalism, one size fits all

Now out of the hip Soho sushi bars and into mass retail outlets such as Ikea, the Gap, Niketown and Club Monaco, minimalist design is a certified trend in retail. Taking their cues from International Style architecture and modernist graphic and industrial sensibilities, retailers are creating in-store experiences that fall in line with the international trend for less.

Dean Martin, creative director at Toronto branding and design shop Spencer Francey Peters traces the beginning of modern minimalism to the launch of Wallpaper magazine in 1996, ‘a hit right from the start.’ Now there’s Simple, a whole magazine about scaling down, as well as the white-space-friendly Food and Drink from the Liquor Control Board of Ontario. Cool, hip restaurants and bars in urban centres are all very minimal, Martin says, citing sleek, white on white Bar One on Toronto’s Queen Street as an example.

It’s not hard to understand why designers like it: traditional minimalism is rigidly aesthetic, requiring an extremely disciplined approach to design and a devotion to that aesthetic as a lifestyle principle. Nor is it terribly difficult to understand why so many retailers have copped the look: retailers routinely jump on trends, and minimalism is currently the height of fashion. Curiouser is the continued popularity of the minimalist look in disparate retail outlets across the country. What drives it?

The ‘newness’ factor cannot be discounted. ‘Like anything else, people are interested because all the style magazines and fashion indicators say that it’s the next big thing,’ Martin says. But from a retailer’s perspective, there’s more to it than that.

‘Neatness, and clean merchandising allowed two things to happen,’ says David Saffer, a retail consultant with Toronto’s SECOR Consulting. ‘It allowed the retailer to create enormous drama around the merchandise, and it solved the problem of customer self-service.’

He thinks the retail trend in minimalism started with the Gap, which managed to create a neat and clean merchandising format, just as Canadian retailers like Mark’s Work Wearhouse did with jeans, and Bata did with the ‘powerwall’ of sneakers. ‘They solved the problem of finding it in my size,’ Saffer says. ‘Suddenly, you could walk past the store in the mall and see a wall of sneakers. It says ‘We’re really in this business.’ In response, the customer says, ‘I’m going to find what I’m looking for here.”

Saffer calls the end result ‘dramatic clarity.’ A designer might be more inclined to refer to it as ‘highlighting the desirability of the object,’ but whatever you call it, the trend is evident.

‘Even Canada Post is creating dramatic clarity, category by category. It will have a gift-card section and the displays are clear enough that the customer immediately gets the message that Canada Post is in this business.’

As always, consumer tastes also play a major role in the trend. Simplicity is the first buzzword that comes to mind. Unmistakably, minimalism is a response to a general sense of information overload.

‘The idea is to cut away the clutter and let the merchandise speak for itself,’ says Keith Francis, director of strategy planning and new business development at Toronto design firm Shikatani Lacroix, which recently completed a minimalist-driven interior renovation for style maven Holt Renfrew. That means axing any ‘extra-curricular noise,’ including signage and point-of-purchase materials. Francis says, ‘reducing the amount of information makes it easier for the customer to make the decision.’

The convenience factor is a big one. The leisure shopper certainly exists, but generally speaking, anything that makes it easier to get in and out of a store and find what you want connotes a deep respect for the time-pressed.

Saffer says another customer complaint is narrow aisles. Clean up the merchandising space and you can widen the aisles and create more air in the shopping environment.

One of the most interesting facets of minimalist retail design is the ‘wardrobing’ effect. Every merchant wants to create the maximum number of product adjacencies, like the Gap does by offering T-shirts that match pants that come with a belt and would look good with this pair of socks. A truly minimalist look excludes all other possibilities. In other words – take just one thing out of a well-orchestrated store and you’ve missed the point. You need all of it.

The rise of retail design

Talk of minimalism might sound foreign to retailers that prefer to put the emphasis on value and consumer choice. But even traditionally ‘cluttered’ retailers are starting to simplify. Shikatani Lacroix recently did some work for discount grocery chain Price Chopper, which wanted to create some clarity in its stores without alienating the customers who expected to see the value-message in all aspects of the store. In that case, it was careful to balance merchandise displays with signage.

In another job, Shikatani looked at Buck or Two, a dollar-store chain offering a mishmash of bargains. Instinctively, they sought to maintain the value message in-store. But research proved that Buck or Two customers were well-educated, mid- to high-level consumers who wanted to get a deal. As long as the price points were there, a new look for the store could only boost sales.

No doubt about it, consumers know design, and they expect to see it in retail environments. As Francis puts it, ‘they are not just going out and looking at basic colours to paint their homes: they’re bringing colour chips. They know what Pantone colours are. And feng shui.’

That segues neatly into another reason that minimalist design can work. Minimalist retail is traditionally associated with haute couture, and the best examples of it are still limited to such minimalist extravaganzas as the Rem Koolhaus-designed Prada in New York, or the hip boutique shopping spots in Toronto’s Queen West area. The aspirational consumer knows that, and sees no reason why he or she can’t have a piece of it.

The problem with less

There’s a certain risk associated with mechanical slickness: it’s easy to lose the emotional connection.

Francis describes a recent shopping experience looking for pots and pans. In one department store he found the pots and pans beautifully set up on a shelf in what was clearly a ‘product as hero’ minimalist display. The problem was, he found no reason to reach for one. He went to Ikea and found the same set-up – but this display was tempered with a photograph of a single piece of asparagus.

‘Just that picture alone created the emotional link and brought back the tone and feel,’ he says. ‘That’s the environment enhancing the product experience. And asparagus is so functionally beautiful that having it on the wall really inspired the left and the right side of my brain to react. In a retail environment, both of those sides have to be played upon.’

Francis suggests the Telus stores as an example where the white space becomes alienating. The look, which worked so well in its advertising, became extremely stark in a retail environment. ‘They’re trying to make the product hero, but in actual fact what it does is make the product a commodity item. There’s nothing around it to suggest a warmth, a connectivity.’

That’s not the only pitfall. For the retailer, minimalism presents an interesting editorial challenge. Strictly speaking, a minimalist approach requires a better retailer – one that can predict just what his customer is looking for, and have the confidence to make that the keystone of his product offerings. Dangerously, it means trimming down the inventory.

‘For every square foot I take away from product display, I may lose a sale, because an SKU equals a dollar,’ Saffer says. ‘What happens is merchants have to get better at their craft. The merchant has to be able to say, ‘This is what you want.’ That’s a risk.’

Then again, current levels of inventory control mean more and more retailers can take this risk. And a new Levi’s brand store in Chicago has solved another problem – customer flow through the store. Levi’s built a store where 85% of the fixtures are changeable, allowing the merchant to change the customer flow overnight, and move the dramatic clarity from one item to the next. Simple.

The evolution of minimalism

Andrew R. Mackenzie, strategic director for Toronto design communications consultancy Dinnick & Howells, suggests, ‘Minimalism is a result of co-dependency between consumers and producers.’ Here he considers the life cycle of that relationship:

Evolution of branding from art-to-science,

Absolute crafting of total product image,

Wants artificially transformed to needs,

Most highly advanced consumer society in history,

Consumption as entertainment,

Consumption as achievement,

Status symbol disconnection from law of supply and demand,

Elevation of products to objects of desire,

Self-fulfilling pop art prophecy that brand is art,

Calculated minimalism of a museum setting to enhance focus on exhibits,

Museum aesthetic co-opted for retail experience,

‘Wallpapering’ of all consumer impressions,

Backlashed desire for retro,

Death of innovation, death of creativity.

Bumper stickers of the branding/design apocalypse

Simplicity is honesty.

Blank is beautiful.

Empty is full (of potential).